The Western Conference is loaded with talented teams and surprising rosters. At the top of the West, however, is an unfamiliar team: the Denver Nuggets, who can perhaps be the biggest threat to the Warriors in the conference. Led by young stars, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, along with several other promising and solid role players, the Nuggets could potentially be the biggest challenger to the Warriors’ quest in winning three consecutive championships.
With that being said, here are three reasons the Denver Nuggets could be the most challenging team for the Warriors in the Western Conference.
3. The Youth Factor
Sure, the Warriors are the defending champs of the NBA the past two seasons, but the Nuggets possess a variable that the Warriors do not: their youth. Jokic is 23-years-old and Murray is 21, along with Murray’s backcourt mate, Gary Harris at 24. All three of those players are significantly younger than the Warriors’ stars. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are both 30, while Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green are all 28.
Yes, it helps the Warriors having all of the playoff experience that they have had, but it also helps to have youth and inexperience on your side like the Nuggets have. With that youth and inexperience, they can play free-flowing basketball without have much expectations compared to a team that has expectations as high as the moon in charging toward a three-peat.
After all, the Warriors know what it’s like to have youth and inexperience as they did so five years ago in 2013 against the same Denver Nuggets team, who had sky-high postseason expectations and players such as Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and current Warrior swingman, Andre Iguodala.
2. Denver’s Role Players/Bench
A team is almost never just comprised with stars, no matter how young they are. The Nuggets are no different. They have Jokic, Harris and Murray, an emerging ‘Big 3′, along with veteran star, Paul Millsap, but the role players for Denver have helped them immensely, namely Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee.
Beasley and Morris have seen increases in minutes and with that, an increase in production. Beasley is averaging a career-high 8.1 points per game, while Morris is averaging 10.3 points and 4.1 assists. The two young guards off the bench are making the most of their playing time. Lyles is also averaging a career-high 20.6 minutes and 10.1 points per game. Plumlee is not averaging any career-bests, but his 7.3 points and 5.7 rebounds are solid for 19 minutes of playing time.
In fact, in the Nuggets’ lone matchup against the Warriors this season, it was Juan Hernangomez, who had the game-saving block on Warriors’ center Damian Jones, trying to tie the game up with a layup.
It was not Jokic or Millsap, or any of the other Denver stars who denied Jones. It was bench player, Hernangomez, who got into crunchtime and made a huge defensive play to preserve the victory for the Nuggets.
This brings me to my top point about how the Nuggets are the biggest threat in the West to the Warriors.
1. The Denver Defense
The Nuggets employ several long, athletic and versatile defenders including Lyles, Millsap, Murray and certified Warrior killer, Will Barton. The versatility of these athletes allow a simple switching concept on defense. They switch onto defending an offensive player that they think they can contain and stop. The versatility of the Nuggets is not just a team concept, but a whole league-wide concept.
The numbers back up a sturdy Denver defense. They currently sit sixth in the association in defensive rating at 105.3 compared to the Warriors’ 13th ranking in that category at 108.1. The Nuggets also rank eighth in the league in opponents points off turnovers at 15.9, while the Warriors sit 26th in that category at 18.4. Additionally, the Nuggets rank second in the league in defending the three at 32.4 percent for their opponents and the Warriors are just a shade behind them in third at 32.9 percent.
The Nuggets are swarming defensively, getting several steals (8.5/game, good for 10th in the NBA) and the Warriors have to combat that somehow because any turnovers will feed the opponent energy and life on the offensive end.
In the end, it would be a fun matchup to see the defending champs play a youthful Nuggets team that has nothing to lose. After all, that’s just how the Warriors were a few years ago.